TOWARD ANOTHER CLAN
Family traits give us character and family names give us identity.
Family names are a matter of circumstance -- of birth or marriage -- while family traits are matters of circumstances and culture -- of nature and nurture.
Yet, these things don't always work their way in a straightforward manner.
An adopted boy or girl gets anointed with a name more as in marriage rather than from the heritage of birth, and sometimes when a man marries he becomes more closely associated with his wife's family than with the family whose name he bears.
This was the way of it for my father and thus for my sister and myself as well.
There are many reasons why such things happen, so we'll look at our set of circumstances.
SAMUEL LEON and ESSIE (WHICHARD) BRIDGERS of GREENVILLE:
Though often asked, my father had no certain idea as to why he was named Samuel.
Not knowing his family history in any longitudinal sense he lacked the insight that more males of the Bridger/Bridgers line have been christened Samuel than known by any other given name.
Every generation has had at least one Samuel, and sometimes more, when cousins and collateral branches are considered.
Samuel remains a favorite name for Bridgers even unto generations now coming along.
By tradition and habit Samuel occupies a position of respect in our family.
To my way of thinking my father was well named, for he was, indeed, "a good man;" in some ways more so than many of those from whom he was begotten.
In truth my son (Samuel Leon Bridgers II) and my grandnephew (Samuel Bridgers Wilkerson) bear this name solely because of my grandfather, and not because any of us realized the long string of Samuel Bridgers from whence we sprung.
The chances are that in all generations these many Samuels were each named for an immediate forebear with little or no awareness that such christening had propagated itself as a family custom.
Those of my father's day and generation knew him as a man of integrity and kindness, truly "a southern gentleman," and those younger venerated him for his wisdom.
If this seems over-stated simply remember I'm not saying he was famous or politically prominent -- rather his influence was spread by the affection of the family members he lived among and the many in his community, young and old, who called him friend.
He was always a constant and adequate provider for his family, and for my sister and me -- with our mother often ill and away at the hospital for months at the time -- he was caregiver as well as caretaker.
He was a man of tender strength.
We never knew his exact date of birth except that it had been on Thanksgiving Day -- some say November 27th.
None of us ever checked back through the calendar for that year and pinpointed an exact date.
Officially in 1891 Thanksgiving had been being marked for only about thirty years -- having been first proclaimed nationally by Abraham Lincoln during The Civil War -- and, at the time, falling on the last Thursday in November.
Later -- in the tenure of Franklin Roosevelt -- it was changed to be the fourth Thursday of each November, in a move to separate it more surely from Christmas. We took the easy way out and simply accepted Thanksgiving as his birthday, regardless of how it was calculated.
As we were later to realize, he was always more attentive to our anniversaries than we to his.
As was the wont in those days, he was born at home.
He never indicated that he really remembered his real mother. He always felt warmly toward his stepmother, Martha Collier, who essentially reared him.
He recalled having helped with her quilting bees when he stretched and fluffed the cotton swatches used for batting, and kept the patches of cloth, to be used, orderly and at hand.
He obviously looked forward to the crowd of neighboring ladies who visited for these affairs, which were among the finest social occasions he recalled in his parents' home.
He told little of these very early years, but spoke fondly of his days in school.
He started in a one-room school on the adjacent farm about 1/4 mile from his home, and he finished in a two-room school in the nearby village of Purvis -- he spent three years in each.
This was at a time when state mandated public schools had but recently been started -- thanks to the efforts of Gov. William Aycock -- at the turn-of-the-century.
My grandfather was "Superintendent of Schools," this combining the position of School Board Chairman with the responsibilities of head administrator -- these two small schoolhouses constituted his district.
Limited though these few years were they must have served him well, for my father became an avid reader and continued his own education until he died in his nineties.
The teachers in such schools were in general women who had only finished such rudimentary education themselves, though Gov. Aycock fostered college training for teachers.
This had a profound influence on my life and the development of my hometown, Greenville, the seat of the government in Pitt County.
Somewhere along the way an affluent neighbor offered to send my father to seminary, saying, "I've helped make a lawyer and helped make a doctor. I'd like to help make a preacher!"
However, my father turned him down, feeling his scant background in schooling was inadequate support for training in what was then the transcendent graduate program for those in the Methodist Church.
Considering the abilities he later showed, and his religious sense of ethics and kindliness, it's a pity he made such a decision, for surely he would have become a dedicated and gifted clergyman.
With the broad brood among whom he was raised, apparently the older ones were gone into the world when the younger ones came along.
He remembered his farm home well -- each room heated by its own fireplace and lit with kerosene lamps and lanterns.
To avoid the threat of devastating fire, the kitchen was semi-detached from the house.
Plumbing was outdoors.
In his youth, he and his immediately older brothers -- Leggett, Ruppert, Elbert and Vinton worked together on the farm.
Robert ("Bob") also lived in the home, but had an R. F. D. mail route, which he delivered by horse and buggy.
Cotton was their money crop and they raised corn and oats for their own use and to feed the farm animals -- cattle, hogs, mules and horses.
They processed their own beef and pork.
Tobacco didn't become their money crop until World War I, which was after my father had left home.
He spoke of their buggy and a surrey with curtains and fringes, and recalls how a neighbor often remarked how well he looked after their horses and equipment and never abused either.
They also had fruit trees and enjoyed canned peaches throughout the winter, traditionally having these for Sunday night supper.
With his tenants and sons, John Bridgers gradually cleared about 100 acres for tillage.
Despite his misgivings about college, he made the try.
In 1909 The East Carolina State Teachers Training School opened in Greenville as part of Gov. Aycock's move toward improving public education with a two-year normal school program.
Sam Bridgers entered on of the first classes, but dropped out after quickly learning he did not want to be a teacher.
Coincidentally my mother entered E. C. S. T. T. S. about this same time, but neither ever indicated that they knew one another in those days.
At his cousin Lindsay Norments' behest they dropped out to go to business school in Atlanta. In the end, Lindsay didn't go with him but Sam did well and finished the course.
In 1915 Sam entered Wofford College, the Methodist School for South Carolina. He lived with the family of his brother Vinton.
When one considers these academic peregrinations, it becomes evident that contrary to the claims that he "never went to college," but rather, he never finished college.
One skill which he brought from business school and which I always admired was his beautiful Spencerian handwriting. He could scribble a note with more legibility and style than I could effect by earnest effort.
His father was a member of the Methodist Church at Raynham, a nearby crossroads in Robeson County, but my father, when he reached an age of independence, joined the Methodist Church at the nearby village of Purvis.
He ever remained a Methodist.
Oddly enough, the Presbyterian Church was probably the strongest Protestant sect in Robeson County -- thanks to the influence of the Scots -- but as Sam put it, "Presbyterian country was down toward Rowland," one of the larger towns in the county.
In 1913 he landed his first job with the railroad, becoming a mail clerk on the train coursing between Elrod and Myrtle Beach, S. C. each weekday.
His job was to sort the postal items on the mail car between stops.
He still lived on his parents' farm.
Then his older brother, Leggett, at the time the Atlantic Coast Line agent in Dillon, S. C. had him apply for a job with his friend -- a Mr. Bennett -- who was the District Agent of The American (or Southern) Express Company -- for a summer job while he was enrolled at Wofford, and he was hired as "clerk and handyman" at the Rocky Mount office.
On Friday nights he worked on "the fish train" between Norfolk and Fayetteville.
When his "money ran out" in the following autumn he went back to Rocky Mount and from then on gave up on college and remained in the work force.
In January 1917 he was transferred to Greenville, North Carolina as Assistant Agent for the Railway Express Office, and, though he knew it not then, his life had reached a crucial pivot.
Some several years before an odd situation had arisen in North Carolina. This was several years before the Women's Temperance Union had made its way across the nation.
The state passed prohibition against the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages within its borders.
Neither could alcoholic products for human consumption be shipped in by the U. S. Postal Service, though they could be brought in by The Railway Express when ordered, purchased and shipped from outside markets.
Dad said this was the largest source of income for the Express agencies in the state when he went to work, and that mainly for this reason the express shipping business in N. C. then flourished.
So it was in Greenville that he became Assistant Agent.
The Greenville agent at that time was Henry Sheppard, a widower.
Since the loss of his wife Mr. Sheppard's two sons, "H" and Henry, Jr., had been largely raised in the home of their maternal aunt, Mrs. Henrietta Sutton Whichard -- "Miss Hennie" to many of her friends.
She was married to David Jordan Whichard, the publisher of the local newspaper, The Daily Reflector, which he had started as a weekly with his brother a score of years before.
The Whichard family all referred to Mr. Sheppard as "Brother Henry," an appellation which persisted into my generation.
It was a close and possessive family, which similarly extended to the motherless children of another of Mrs. Whichard's sisters.
Among those who fostered a particularly close tie with "Brother Henry" was Essie Sheppard Whichard who was named for her aunt, "Brother Henry's" deceased wife, Estelle Sutton Sheppard.
Essie Whichard apparently rarely missed the opportunity to visit with "Brother Henry" in the Express Office when she was "up-town," and these visits became daily affairs after Sam Bridgers appeared on the scene.
Soon Sam and Essie were "keeping company."
This was the state of affairs in 1917 when Sam became a member of The American Expeditionary Forces, which would go to France to fight Germany in the altercation that was becoming World War I.
Essie wrote him a letter every day while he was away, in training and overseas.
Little did Sam realize that he had taken his first step toward becoming, in spirit, a Whichard rather than a Bridgers.
He was drafted in September 1917 into the infantry and trained at Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina.
Six months later he was sent to New York City and in the harbor there he boarded the S. S. America, a ship commandeered from the Germans by the Americans, and Sam Bridgers, along with some 4,000 to 5,000 other Americans, was shipped to Brest, France, arriving there in April 1918.
After many trips across the Atlantic carrying troops, this ship was sunk in New York Harbor, presumably by espionage.
Sam's first month overseas was spent in "being moved all over France" with 2 or 3-day stops, sleeping in barns and other makeshift shelters.
His travel was mostly by train and a comparison of the French and American railway systems was not lost on an "old railroad man" like my father.
The French trains were much noisier.
The Gallic type ran on narrower gage tracks and they were laid so the joints between the individual sections of rail were side-by-side instead of staggered, so that when the wheel carriages passed over these junctions they made a loud "clack" instead of the softer "click-clack" to which Americans were accustomed.
They were accommodated in box-cars, much smaller than those back home, and each car bore on its side the sign "40 hommes - 8 chevals," indicating it would accommodate 40 men or 8 horses.
The doughboys promptly named them "forty and eights," and after the war this became the name of a special membership niche in the American Legion, which would be the prime American veterans' organization from "The Great War."
My father never talked as if the soldiers with him in France partook of the famous "Parisian cuisine" -- he felt their fare was marginal in appeal and inadequate in quantity.
He said he often awoke hungry during the night thinking how tasty would be "… a mess of cold collards from the safe in the kitchen," such being among the least savory viands from home which he could recall.
After the war he seldom looked at a tureen full of soup or stew that he didn't remark, "Ugh - slumgullion!"
This is an archaic name for a meat and vegetable stew, but in the fields of France and Flanders it apparently took on an undesirable meaning -- sort of an onomatopoeic usage denoting a dish which sounded as unsavory as it looked and tasted.
These complaints were aptly not unlike that of any group forced to substitute an institutional diet for the sustenance to which they had grown accustomed at home, let it be in the armed services, college or summer camp.
"Slumgullion" is a name also given to the liquor and remnants left over from processing a whale carcass, or the red, muddy refuse issuing from a mining sluice - perhaps these factors related to its culinary use in W. W. I.
I guess the "Doughboys" from Europe fretted about "slumgullion" much as we did about "Spam" during World War II.
Anyway, Sam Bridgers was transferred in July 1918 to a supply and ammunition company involved in moving shells from "The French 75's" to the front and empty shell casings back, apparently for recycling.
This continued until "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" of that year - that is, 'til Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
The following month he became "company clerk" in the Army of Occupation of Germany, and was moved across The Moselle River and stationed in a small town, the name of which new escapes me, involved in the civil administration of the community and the business of his army outfit.
He was billeted in a private German home and felt warmly toward the family who took him in.
That the household had two young daughters may have added to his good feelings.
One night, returning home from guard duty, he found the daughters being accosted by two inebriated American soldiers, and according to him, he sent them packing.
This incident may have figured largely in his being "treated well" by the family, and framed the mind-set he ever maintained after the war of being much more attracted to the Germans than to the French.
He often said that the French Poilu was the ablest soldier in the field in "The Great War" -- a tradition he felt could be traced from the days of Napoleon -- but he felt the Germans were much more likeable folk.
The wild frontal assaults carried out by the Allied commanders early in the trench warfare of the First World War produced havoc among the French and British foot soldiers, and it was this mindless carnage, which robbed the French of "… the Flower of Her Manhood."
This consequence would come home to roost a generation later when these same adversaries would again face one another, but under different military strategies, tactics and technology.
An official brief resume of Sam's war record is contained in the copy of The American Legion certificate appended at the end of this chapter.
He was shipped back from Brest in August 1919 to Camp Merritt, New Jersey on a "small cattle boat" which he found frightening in the heavy seas.
He was discharged from the service at the end of that month at Camp Lee in Petersburg, Virginia.
He was given a few dollars in "mustering out" pay, and when he arrived at Elrod a few days later his father took him to a near-by general store and bought him a suit off the rack.
This was little enough for one who fancied that he had "… fought to make the world safe for democracy," but abundantly more help than John Bridgers had received when he walked home from The Civil War a half-century before, an impoverished and paroled prisoner-of-war of the Union.
This is probably one of the reasons that Sam Bridgers took such pride in "The G. I. Bill of Rights" which he felt The American Legion was largely responsible for getting through Congress, and which, indeed, did change the culture of The United States in the next generation following W. W. II.
In any event, in short order he was back in Greenville, and on September 8, 1919, at the home of David Whichard Jordan and Henrietta Sutton Whichard he and Essie Whichard were married, a union that persisted until her death in 1979 when she was in her eighties.
Mr. Barrett, my father's benefactor in The Railway Express Company rehired him, this time as agent in Lumberton, N. C., this being in his home county of Robeson -- my mother was also given the position of Assistant Agent.
It was here that I came into being, though I would not make an appearance until July 4 1920, and this seems an apt time to wrap-up the background history of the Bridger/Bridgers family as it has impacted on me and mine.
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BACK TO THE BEAVERS
Returning to Mercer Sherman, a stranger to me, but known to my friend, Baynard Milton ….
Remember, 'twas Mercer whose question about the Bridgers family -- among other things -- which triggered this outpouring.
After the "shaggy dog" treatment of the subject Mercer must feel like the fourth-grader who asked his teacher a question about beavers.
She didn't give him an answer, but instead reached into her bookshelves and fetched him a small volume on beavers.
"Here," she said, "find your own answer, and while you're at it, give us a report next week on this book!"
In due time he gave his report and did a credible job.
"Now," said the teacher, "how did you like the book?"
"It was," he replied, "almost more than I wanted to know about beavers!"
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-- January 1999 --
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